PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Thomas Pieters is a homebody at heart.
It’s why the emerging European Tour star, who is making big moves toward securing his PGA Tour card this year, isn’t any closer to moving back to the United States, where he won an NCAA individual title for the University of Illinois.
Pieters, 25, loves his Belgian home.
“He’s very, very close to family,” said Mike Small, Pieters’ college coach.
With his tie for second at the Genesis Open Sunday, where he played on a sponsor’s exemption, Pieters nearly locked up special temporary PGA Tour membership. He now has 306 non-member FedEx points, just 13 points shy of what he needs. He could lock up temporary membership with his start this week at the Honda Classic.
While Pieters would relish being able to have his pick of PGA Tour and European Tour events, he won’t be making the PGA Tour his primary focus anytime soon.
“I’m going to say no right now,” Pieters said. “It might change in the future. Just because I'm really close to my family, and I love living at home. I'm a new uncle now, which is really exciting.”
Pieters has an older sister and brother. His sister, Lieselotte, helps manage him. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, three months ago.
“King Arthur,” Pieters said.
Pieters looks like he could be the next young star in the game, with skills that can help him challenge Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth in the battle for the game’s biggest prizes.
A three-time European Tour winner, Pieters introduced himself to American golf fans who didn’t already know him in a big way at the Ryder Cup last fall, going 3-0 for the Euros in partnered matches with McIlroy. Pieters’ overall 4-1 record was the best by a European rookie in the history of the matches.
Pieters wowed Americans and Euros alike.
“He doesn’t really have a weakness in any department,” former European Ryder Cup captain Mark James raved in the wake of the matches. “Even Tiger Woods at his best had weaknesses. He is a modern version of Nick Faldo – bigger hitting, higher flying, more aggressive.”
Pieters showed some bravado in those Ryder Cup matches, shushing American crowds in a Saturday match alongside McIlroy. Pieters’ friend, Nicolas Colsaerts, later told the Telegraph that Pieters “doesn’t like Americans that much” and can’t see him playing in the United States full time because of that.
Pieters has never said that. He said Tuesday that his tour decisions are about love of family and his European roots.
“Even when I go away for three weeks, I miss my family,” Pieters said. “That's why I'm going to keep playing in Europe, for the Ryder Cup, as well. I told [European Ryder Cup captain] Thomas Björn that I'm not going to leave his tour. I'm dedicated to playing in Europe and being in that Ryder Cup Team.”
Small knows how strong Pieters’ family and European ties are. Small nearly lost his young star to homesickness when Pieters was a freshman at Illinois.
Pieters went home to Belgium for Thanksgiving break as a freshman and almost didn’t return.
“He thought about packing it in, because he was homesick,” Small said. “He didn’t dislike Illinois, he just missed home.
“He has some very good parents, and they stood tall and strong for him. They told him he made a promise to us and a commitment to the program, and they put him on the plane and told him he had to go back.”
Pieters said he remembers that well. He wouldn’t be an NCAA champion today if his parents didn’t step in like that.
“My parents were big on if you started something, you finished it,” Pieters said. “You don’t just give up after a half year when things aren’t going your way, just because of the language barrier and the distance. I’m very, very happy they made me go back.”
There should be some comfort level for Pieters in Palm Beach Gardens this week. The Honda Classic has become a home away from home for a lot of Europeans. McIlroy has a South Florida home.
Pieters ought to be a good fit at PGA National’s Champion Course, a Jack Nicklaus redesign. It’s one of the tougher regular tour stops, and Pieters seems to thrive on tough tracks.
“You look at Thomas’ college wins, they came on tough golf courses,” Small said. “He won the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village. He won the Big Ten Championship at French Lick, and he won the NCAA Championship at Riviera. Those are all ball-strikers’ courses.”
Small believes American galleries will love Pieters the more they get to know him.
“He’s a very good person, a very respectful kid, who’s smart and a lot of fun,” Small said.